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Behind the Words

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If you meet someone at a cocktail party and ask them the inevitable question: "So what do you do?" and they respond, "Oh, I'm in development," what do you think they do? 

How you answer that probably depends a lot on what YOU do, or even in what part of the world you live. If you are a techie, work in a technology company, or live in Silicon Valley, you would think they are in research and development, designing a new product. If you work in a non-profit or university, you would think they work in fund-raising and developing donors. If you work in international relations, economics or public policy, either in a university or government, or if you live in a developing country, you would think they work in developing and supporting developing countries.

Because people in all these different situations may work on, or at least care about, environmental issues, this is a simple example of the challenges in creating effective dialogue.

It's more than misunderstanding a word; eventually you will learn the other vocabulary. Rather, the challenge is that behind the words lies a fundamentally different way of viewing the world. If you are trying to collaborate to develop a solution to a problem, you can't be successful unless you know what game each person is playing.

How can you work in such multi-language situations and achieve real results? You have to understand the context behind the language, and you must be inquisitive, humble and ethical. You must understand the incentive of the speaker. What do they want? What's their mission? What is the environment they live and work in?

You can see this by looking at work at the Base of the Pyramid, in developing countries.

•    Large multinational companies see a large potential market, but it's very fractured, and it takes a long time to develop trust. They may not have the patience to take that time, or products just may not scale enough to make it profitable.

•    NGOs.  Many are driven by their local passion for the community, so they can't always think beyond the community, how to scale a solution, or how to make it sustain financially.

•    Academics see an interesting problem, they want to study it, understand solutions that work (and why).

These are three pretty different views. How can they work together? And don't forget the customers - in this case, the people who actually live in the area. The language of each can help. The academic can give you "what works," the NGO can give you "this is how people live," and companies can tell you what can work financially. You need to find the bridge builder in each organization. It's often not the leader of the team. The leader tends to be a person who is really focused on the mission.  But a bridge builder is the translator, the one who can understand the words and their context (the syntax and semantics) of the other group. Getting that person on each team is critical.

And you have to remember that in the end, regardless of who we are, or where we live, we all want fundamentally the same thing, peace and prosperity for our family. Years ago, when I was working in India, I drove by a slum every day on the way to the office. This slum was a collection of one-room buildings and tarpaulin tents inhabited by migrant construction workers and their families. One morning amidst the bustle in the slum, I saw a mother in front of her tent, kneeling in front of her daughter, combing her hair and straightening her blouse, getting india-girls.jpgher ready for school and making sure she looked nice. Just like millions of other mothers around the world that morning.

Anne Frank said it well: "We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same."

Fred Rose is co-founder and director of Acara, an academic partnership that gives emerging entrepreneurs a chance to envision and launch successful social businesses. Photo of children in Mumbai courtesy of the author.

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  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.